Film footage from the 1950s has been uncovered showing the drilling of an invaluable ‘core’ sample from Stonehenge. This sample was central to recent University of Brighton research into the geology and likely origins of the large sarsen stones at the monument. Alongside the research, the story of the sample’s disappearance and return to Britain made global headlines. The films showing the original drilling now have a home at the university’s Screen Archive South East and add fascinating detail to records of the prehistoric monument’s twentieth-century heritage.
The footage was shot in 1958 by engineer Robert Phillips and shows colleagues drilling through one of the largest Stonehenge megaliths, removing three slender cores of silcrete and preparing to replug the holes. The work was part of efforts by heritage conservationists to raise one of the fallen trilithons, the two vertical sarsen stones with a third across the top, which are now so iconic to the site.
Phillips was working for diamond tools business, Van Moppes, who were contracted to reinforce one of the upright stones with metal rods. Following the work, the company was given one of the core samples. Phillips was gifted this core when he retired in 1976 and took it with him when he later emigrated to the US. The core moved with him around the US, ending up at his final home in Florida, from where it was repatriated to the care of English Heritage in 2018. This "Phillips’ core” and a second core, both taken from “Stone 58” at Stonehenge, enabled the University of Brighton’s Professor David Nash to undertake geological analyses in 2020, research that led to an understanding as to the likely quarry site of the famous stones.
The films were discovered last year at Phillips’ home in Florida by one of his sons. The footage is remarkable in not being created for government or official purposes. Instead, it gives an informal record of the site, the engineers’ work and the reactions of excited tourists. Together with the surviving core samples, they provide important documentation of Stonehenge itself and the ways global heritage has been preserved and studied.
Professor David Nash was in contact with the Phillips family following his work using the core. He says, "I was so excited when the Phillips family contacted me about these films. They are incredibly valuable, as they show in some detail how the coring was carried out at Stonehenge in 1958. More importantly for our research, we can now identify exactly which of the three cores we were able to analyse to figure out the source of the giant sarsens".
Jane King from Screen Archive South East says: “The Robert Phillips films really bring to life the specialist and essential work undertaken to preserve one of the sarsen stones. It is thanks to the British Film Institute and our local authority partners that the University of Brighton’s Screen Archive South East is able to take the necessary steps to preserve, digitise, catalogue and make publicly available these unique films. Importantly, we thank the Phillips family for depositing the films with the archive, thereby ensuring their long-term preservation and access.”
Visit the Collection Robert H Phillips on the Screen Archive South East website.
Read more about Professor Dave Nash's work on the Stonehenge sarsen stones and the origins of the largest monoliths.
(Above) Three stills from footage 'Stonehenge Drilling Operation, 20 August 1958, Robert H Phillips.' Courtesy of Screen Archive South East and the Phillips family.
Professor Dave Nash analysing the sarsen core extracted from Stone 58 at Stonehenge. Photo by Sam Frost, English Heritage.